Jason Corcoran in Moscow -
A film by an Irish director capturing the chaotic, dynamic and insomniac nature of life in the Russian capital was challenging to make and almost impossible to finance.
The Russian-language film 'Moscow Never Sleeps', directed by Johnny O’Reilly, set during 24 hours in the city and shot over two years, opened to critical acclaim at the weekend in 500 theatres across the country.
“I had to juggle a lot while directing,” O’Reilly tells bne IntelliNews in an interview in Moscow after the premier. “On one occasion, I remember rushing to the Aist restaurant to meet a friend of friend to get financing to keep the picture going for the next week. I needed $250,000 by Saturday or I was f***** by Monday. I felt sick inside and it looked like it was all going to fall apart until someone, whom I can’t name, stepped in with the money."
The Russian-Irish co-production received half of its eventual $3.7mn budget in “soft financing” from the Irish Film Board and Eurimages, the organisation that funds European co-productions. The remainder of the cash was drummed up by O’Reilly corralling a gang of private equity investors, who were bankers or businessmen with strong links to Moscow.
Much of the funding for Russian films is channelled by the state, which favours ideologically slanted projects showcasing the country’s military might or promoting traditional family values. Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky in December said his ministry would halt funding to directors who present "Russia as shit", in a reference to the Oscar-nominated Leviathan, which drew a withering response from official circles in Russia for its portrayals of the authorities.
Oligarchs such as Viktor Vekselberg and Leonid Lebedev have made benevolent punts on cinematic projects that have caught their fancy. However, there is no tradition in Russia of investing in film as an asset class or via a private investment pool or a hedge fund.
In the case of Moscow Never Sleeps, billionaire Leonid Blavatnik also provided a crucial injection when funding was floundering before the second year’s shoot. Other minority investors include former Goldman Sachs banker Michael Workman, ex-deputy CEO at Troika Dialog Jacques Der Megreditchian, former Irish minister and Skolovko executive Conor Lenihan and Sberbank CIB director Jamie Corrigan.
“They knew that investing in movies is a big risk,’” O’Reilly says. “They are betting on me and my creative vision rather than bricks and mortar. They were curious about the project and also partly invested because they liked my last movie. The guys are all Russian-based and they know that the film showcases a great city, which is under appreciated by the rest of the world.”
The ruble devaluation, which has seen the currency lose almost 50% of its value in the past year, has also been a headache for O’Reilly. To wipe its face for the private investors, the film needs to earn $2mn in Russia compared to the $1mn initially planned. “We thought Russian distribution would recoup 60% and overseas would be 40%,” O’Reilly says. “With the ruble crash, it’s the other way around.”
The film also uniquely structured insofar as all investors have pro-rata rights to all territories. Typically, Irish investors would have the rights in Ireland and the Russians would enjoy the rights in Russia, a far larger market. O’Reilly hopes to secure international distribution after showing the film at the upcoming Rome festival and Woodstock festival in upstate New York. He is also hopeful of securing a valuable spot on a quota of 25 international movies designated per year for the Chinese market.
The movie, which was rated ‘Film of the Week’ by Forbes Russia, is the director’s ode to a city he first visited 20 years ago and has lived in for the past 12. "I've become acutely aware of how little the world really knows about Russia," says O'Reilly, who wants to help change this. "By revealing the Russian spirit to international audiences, I’m hoping to capture the zeitgeist of Moscow and help create a different impression of Russia in the West."
The multi-narrative script of 'Moscow Never Sleeps' tracks five main characters: an entrepreneur whose property empire comes under siege by Kremlin bureaucrats; a teenage girl mired in the misery of a dysfunctional family; a young man forced to abandon his grandmother; a singer torn apart by her feelings for two men; and an alcoholic film star who gets entangled in a bizarre kidnapping. These narratives interweave through Moscow’s congested metropolis as it celebrates its annual birthday with a massive fireworks display.
At the Moscow premier at the Oktyabr cinema on New Arbat, guests broke out into spontaneous applause when the entrepreneur, played by Alexey Serebyakov of Leviathan fame, tells the bureaucrats where to go in colourful Russia slang as they try to seize his business. Armed police later descend on the property developer’s offices as the businessman speeds away in his car. He tells his girlfriend he has to escape to New York and try to fight the government officials through the courts.
Some of the best shot scenes capturing Moscow’s skyline, its skyscrapers, its bridges, its unending traffic jams and of the Kremlin were shot using a drone. Incredibly, O’Reilly didn’t obtain permission to use the drone as luckily the authorities hadn’t legislated for their use two years ago.
“We wouldn’t have got away with it today given the current the political environment over Ukraine and relations with the West,” O’Reilly says.
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